As Edith, the head of a dysfunctional household that almost certainly includes a murderer, Glenn Close twinkles with steadfast self-confidence and mischievous perception in Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s Crooked House. In contrast, Max Irons plays it straight as the private detective hired to ferret out the killer, giving each member of an ensemble cast of colorful characters a chance to commandeer the spotlight as he conducts interviews and studies family dynamics. I met with Close and Irons (and Close’s dog, Pip, who never strayed far from Close’s feet) at the Crosby Street Hotel for an occasionally raucous conversation often punctuated by Close’s merry laugh and by teasing banter or quick bursts of dialogue between the two actors, who have known each other since Max was an infant. (Max is the son of Jeremy Irons, who won an Oscar for Reversal of Fortune, which also starred Close.) We talked about Close’s artistic family, how women have been treated in Hollywood and how that’s changing, and how it felt for the old family friends to work together in two films in a row (Björn Runge’s The Wife is coming out next year).
My sister-in-law, who lives in Wilson, Wyoming, has art by your sister.
Glenn Close: Tina! That’s where Tina lives. Oh, how cool. She’s really talented.
Is everyone in your family artistic?
Close: Yes, they are. My other sister is a writer, and my brother is an artist with metal. He has a metal shop. He can make anything happen. I love his brain! He lives in Belgrade, Montana, and he says: “I’m like what the blacksmith used to be.” People come in with parts that they can’t find any more and he’ll make something to replace what they lost, or he’ll invent something. He’s gotten people out of big trouble by just inventing things.
Have you known Max since he was a kid?
Close: Yes, I have!
So what was it like for you two to act together?
Close: It was adorable! [laughs]
Irons: She’s seen me in my nappies!
Close: Yeah. And he helped give my daughter Annie a bath—Annie’s now 29—when we were visiting in Oxfordshire. We had such fun!
Irons: It’s very bizarre to be sitting here, actually.
Let’s talk about the film. You’ve said that you always start with the writing when you choose a part. Is that what attracted you to Crooked House?
Julian Fellowes’s script?
Close: Yeah. Julian wrote I don’t know how many versions.
Max Irons: He did two versions, and then our director [Gilles Paquet-Brenner] did a little, and there was someone else in between the two.
Close: And I’d never been in this kind of movie that we all grew up with—the whole family around a table. [laughs] And listening to the reading of the will. [laughs again]
Irons: God, yes! Can you imagine? [laughs]
You’ve played a lot of very strong and interesting women, and Edith is no exception. What do you think directors and casting directors see in you that makes that you keep getting these roles?
Close: I’m deeply insidious. [laughs]
Close: I hope they see somebody who they know will reveal the character truthfully and—I don’t know! You’d have to ask the directors.
You haven’t always played characters who were strong or well fleshed out, but when that happens you tend to speak up about it. You’ve often said you were unhappy with Alex in Fatal Attraction being demonized, and you said that Sunny Bulow was too one-dimensional in Reversal of Fortune, even though the story was basically about her.
You’ve also played [Sunset Boulevard’s] Norma Desmond a couple of times. I thought she was portrayed pretty unsympathetically in the film, but you found a lot more shading in the character when you played her on Broadway.
Close: I initially did it for Trevor [Nunn], and I did it one way, and when I did it recently with Lonny Price it was a totally different take, 22 years later. That was a fascinating exercise, to come back to it after 22 years. I found it so much more fulfilling. Maybe that’s why [directors] hire me, for what I bring to it.
You have said that you think Norma is one of the great roles for women in theater. Why is that?
Close: She’s a tragic heroine. I think it’s basically seeing somebody deconstruct before your eyes, somebody who’s been put through a pretty brutal system, which was Hollywood in that day and age. And she didn’t own herself. She went there when she was 16, 17 years old and she’s the product of that time, when there was no tax, so you’d get incredibly wealthy and you were treated like—I don’t know. Think of the most famous person in the world now, and that’s how they were treated. They were gods and goddesses. And then you become superfluous all of a sudden—and you’re a great creative artist. You think of Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and all those people. They created the industry, and then all of a sudden it’s taken away from you.
And this is the very specific story of a character who’s become a recluse, but her delusions are kept alive by Max. It’s wonderful. You realize he was her first husband, and—aagh! [laughs] So she’s a victim, but there’s something noble in her delusion. Albert Nobbs is the same kind of character. She had this delusion, this dream, and the audience knows how impossible those dreams are. The characters don’t. It’s like watching somebody who’s full of absolute belief be destroyed—like Blanche Dubois, same thing. It’s very human, and also incredibly compelling. To find the humanity in that story, to me, it’s a gift.
Part of what did Norma in was Hollywood’s misogyny. Obviously, men get sidelined too when they got older, but it’s worse for women.
Close: Mm-hmm. To be honest, all those great roles I got were, what, 30 years ago? And then I entered the age where you’re struck by ageism. The thing I think is really exciting now is what’s happening with television. I went to see The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which Ryan Murphy is doing, and it was stunning! And there’s Penélope Cruz in a miniseries, and it’s the same level as the best filmmaking. There’s so much need for content, and now with the revolution that’s going on—hopefully the evolution that’s going on—there will hopefully be more women that will give women jobs. And there’s real trendsetters like Ryan Murphy. He’s remarkable. I think if you really are a craftsman in what we do, you only get better. I’ve never felt more full of life, more on my game than I do now. You hope good roles will come up.
What is it like for you, Max, as a young actor coming up at a time when the ground is shifting in terms of how women are perceived and what behavior toward women is considered acceptable?
Close: He’s only hired because he’s beautiful. [whoops with laughter] I’m just putting it in terms of what they would do to a woman.
Irons: [laughs] Well, of course, of course.
Close: You don’t have big boobs though.
Irons: Thank you. [To me] Get control of your interview! Sorry, what was your question?
What’s it like, as a man, to be coming into this changing arena? Is it liberating for you too, or does it feel like something that’s happening to women and not really affecting you?
Irons: Well, I think it’s affecting everybody. I don’t think this problem is just limited to our occupation.
And of course young men get sexually harassed and assaulted too.
Irons: Of course. And of course Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey—I think a lot of people knew that something wasn’t quite right with these people, though they didn’t know the extent of it. My worry is the problem isn’t going to be handled correctly. We need to be patient, to really honestly examine human nature. We need to be cautious about snapping to judgment. And I think the way the news travels these days isn’t necessarily helpful to that endeavor.
You mean the tendency to rush to judgment?
Irons: The rush to judgment, the sort of dopamine-ness of the way news is reported these days. It makes me worry that it’s going to undermine this evolution a little—which needs to happen. We’ve seen it happen over the past hundreds and thousands of years, just gradual steps. This is the next big one, and hopefully we’re just seeing the beginning of it. I just hope it’s handled correctly, that’s all. And also, it’s just shocking the extent of it, as a man. Not a fucking clue. Pardon my language. I mean, you know that there are predators out there, that there are creeps out there, but the extent of the problem!
It probably wasn’t surprising to you.
You’ve said that Harvey Weinstein was always decent to you, and hopefully no one else assaulted you sexually either. But even if that never happened to you, were there other ways that the casting couch culture in Hollywood affected you as an actor?
Close: It didn’t happen to me personally one on one, but there were two auditions that I went to where I was made to feel extremely uncomfortable. In one, somebody put his hand on my thigh. That’s all it was, but that was enough to be: “What? What?” [looks around as if in a daze]. Because it had nothing at all to do with the scene. What I realized with both of those experiences, and I only realized it in retrospect, was that it really had nothing to do with the scene. It had to do with all the sexual chemistry of the leading man. They bring in women, and what’s important to them isn’t necessarily if you can act but if you’re going to have a sexual frisson.
Irons: That is something you hear, isn’t it, thrown around?
Irons: “Do you have chemistry?”
Close: But you create chemistry! I remember with [John] Malkovich, sitting across from him when I was meeting with Stephen Frears for Dangerous Liaisons, and I remember thinking, “Can I make him, like…” Not that he’s unattractive, but he’s eccentric. You know. And I was like, “Yeah, I can do that. I can fall in love with him.” I mean, it’s our fucking craft. But I remember the same director said, “I want to see the broad walk in the room.” You know, I’m a Wasp. I don’t wear them anymore, but I had little pearl earrings on, and this guy in his jumpsuit behind his desk—very Hollywood director/producer—said, “I just want to see the broad walk in the room.” I thought, “Broads don’t have pearl earrings,” and I kind of surreptitiously, pathetically, took off my earrings. Weird. It wasn’t about me as an actress. It was totally about my sexuality. And I don’t think of myself that way, because you don’t think, “Oh, I’m a sexy person.” But if that’s what they wanted, I could have given it to them. I really think, a lot of times, that’s what it is.
So it makes you feel like an animal being brought in to mate rather than an actor being brought in to act.
Close: Yes. I thought it was, like, let him [the lead actor] sniff around you. If I had been not quite as serious, I would have gone kind of [flirtatiously] “Yeah! Ooh, that feels good,” you know?
Irons: It’s like a code, “chemistry.”
Close: It is! And it’s so pathetic.